Something is eating at New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
He’s having the worst four-game stretch of his career, hasn’t scored a touchdown since last season, regularly gets in verbal scrapes with opponents, argues with officials and has become a major distraction for the Giants.
“Football is my sanctuary. It's where I go to escape. It's where I'm most happy. I'm not having fun anymore,” Beckham said this week.
A lot of theories have been bandied about for Beckham’s emotional outbursts, with the consensus being that opponents have figured out how to get inside his head. What hasn’t been explored is whether this includes Beckham being called gay slurs this season like he was in 2015.
This is speculation on my part, but it’s rooted in history. Beckham’s current slide started last Dec. 20 when he melted down against the Carolina Panthers, his actions being so egregious that he was suspended a game. Afterward, it came to light that the Panthers were swinging a bat in his direction during pregame warmups to unnerve him and also engaged in what several witnesses said were gay taunts against Beckham:
—Deion Sanders, a Hall of Fame cornerback now on the NFL Network, said he heard Panthers defensive players using gay slurs at Beckham before the game, along with other taunts. “Then you start talking about his hairstyle,” Sanders said. “Then you start talking about his sexuality. So now when you’re talking about things like that of that nature, it goes way off the field into something because now this is personal.”
—Michael Irvin, a Hall of Fame receiver and also with the NFL Network, said Beckham told him the Panthers were trash-talking at him with gay slurs. It was apparently nothing new, with Irvin telling the New York Daily News he was “dealing with it every week.”
“He deals with it a lot,” Irvin said. “For some reason, everybody goes after him with gay slurs. He’s a different kind of dude. He has the hairdo out, he’s not the big muscular kind of dude. The ladies all love him. He’s a star. I wonder why people are going in that direction. It blows my mind. I told him he can’t let stuff that people say get to you.”
—Irvin’s comments were echoed by Cris Carter, another Hall of Fame receiver, who said of the Panthers: “There were some things, some gay, homophobic things that were said to him ... Now, that is not just report, that's true. I can confirm all that being true ... I think that was just part of the trash talk.”
—Unnamed Giants officials also insisted that Beckham was subjected to gay slurs by the Panthers.
While the Panthers denied any gay slurs were used, there were too many witnesses that make that claim hard to believe. Beckham telling Irvin that he heard gay slurs all season is evidence that the Panthers game was not an aberration.
This brings us to this season. I watched the last two Giants games — losses to Washington and Minnesota — and Beckham seems awfully agitated when he’s jawing with defensive players. I have wondered what they are saying to him and if any have used a gay slur.
While I have no evidence slurs are still being used against Beckham, it would not be a surprise if it still occurs. The NFL is a cutthroat sport and players will use any ammunition against an opponent that they think will work. While the NFL has a 15-yard penalty for any gay slurs uttered on the field, referees have to hear them first and it’s easy for an opponent to utter them out of a referee’s earshot. The Panthers game and its aftermath clearly have lingered and affected Beckham’s play this season. With no openly gay players in the league, a gay slur can still have an impact and I can see it causing a player to lose his cool, especially one who seems so easy to bait like Beckham.
I don't have any knowledge about Beckham's sexual orientation but it’s immaterial in this case. For whatever reason – his hair style, his love of dancing, his being in a hot tub with a teammate -- he's apparently been labeled as gay by some players. One Bills player said that during their meeting last season, Beckham "generally acted like a bitch." The use of "bitch" and other feminizing words against Beckham are telling; the Bills player could easily have called Beckham a whole host of gender-neutral slurs.
Beckham said the Panthers game “tarnished his image” and he’s clearly not been the same player since then. He has scored zero touchdowns in his last five games and one report has the Giants thinking of benching him if he continues to act out and hurt the team.
Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, without being specific, lashed out at defenders for what they say to Beckham: “They're afraid to match up against him one-on-one, Mano-a-Mano. If that's going to be the approach, you can put that when you're ranking and say, `Obviously the guy's not courageous enough or brave enough or not man enough to go ahead and play it straight up.’ If they need those types of tricks, OK. We're going to rise above that.”
For his part, Beckham late in the week said he will reign himself in. “I think I just have to control what I can control,” he said Thursday. “I can control myself. I can't control anything else but what I do. I definitely know I can do a better job at that.”
I am not defending Beckham's actions on the field. He is clearly hurting the Giants with his antics and with a lack of concentration and production. He is not innocent. But if gay slurs are being used against him by some opponents, as they were last year, it at least makes his reactions understandable if not defensible. Sadly, gay slurs might still be fighting words in the NFL.